By Anna Suvrova
Shah Jalal was not a peaceful Sufi missionary of the type wandering about in great numbers in towns and villages of the Delhi Sultanate. His pır had blessed him for jihad (holy war) against infidels and had sent to Bengal seven hundred armed ghazı, almost a military detach-ment, to accompany him. On the way to Bengal, the saint stopped off in Delhi, where he was received with due respect by Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji (ruled 1290-6), who reinforced the detachment of missionaries with military units of his army. In Bengal the saint’s army indulged in pillage to such an extent that the riches looted in the course of this expedition were enough to sustain Shah Jalal’s comfortable life for many years. The principles of the Naqshbandiyya (an order-descendant of silsila-i Khwjagan), in contrast to the Chishtiyya doctrine, were not against forced conversion to Islam and the annihilation of inveterate pagans. That is why the path of Shah Jalal along the towns and villages of Bengal was strewn with the dead bodies of those who offered resistance to his mission.
The apotheosis of Shah Jalal’s military activity became the battle of Sylhet, where the saint had arrived with a depleted detachment consisting of not more than three hundred men. The uninvited guests were confronted by the Raja of Bengal Gaur Govind, who had put together an army of hundred thousand infantrymen and several hundred mounted soldiers (it should not be forgotten that these figures are given not by a historian but by the author of a hagio-graphic work). In spite of such a numerical advantage, the Raja’s army was routed, which was, of course, indicative of the power of the baraka of the saint.
After the battle of Sylhet a part of the territory of East Bengal submitted to Shah Jalal. He granted large landed estates to his associates, who took up residence there and settled down to life as married men. Shah Jalal himself remained celibate and earned the nickname Shah Mujarrad (Shah Bachelor). The threat of the Mongol conquests forced him to leave the place which they had occupied for so long.
He set off to Baghdad and from there he went to Multan and Ucch where he took initiation into the Suhrawardiyya order from Shaikh Ruknuddin Abul Fath. He then visited Delhi where, according to tradition, he met Nizamuddin Awliya, which is in accordance with the life histories of both saints. The journey of Shah Jalal back to Bengal in the first half of the fourteenth century took place quite peacefully: he finally settled down in Sylhet, by that time subjugated for the second time by the Governor of Bengal, Shamsuddin Firoz, and, having built a khnqah, started leading the secluded life of a hermit. The most interesting and authentic information about the saint comes from Ibn Battuta, who visited East Bengal in 1345. He has, in particular, written:
I set out from Sudkawan [Chittagong - A. S.] for the mountains of Kamaru [Kamrup, a region on the border of East Bengal and Assam - A. S.], a month’s journey from there ... My purpose in travelling to these mountains was to meet a notable saint who lives there, namely, Shaykh Jalal ad-Din of Tabriz. At a distance of two days’ journey from his abode I was met by four of his disciples, who told me that the Shaykh had said to the darwishes who were with him: ‘The traveller from the West has come to you; go out to welcome him’. He had no knowledge whatever about me, but this had been revealed to him. I went with them to the Shaykh and arrived at his hermitage, situated outside the cave. There is no cultivated land there, but the inhabitants of the country, both Muslim and infidel, come to visit him, bringing gifts and presents, and the darwishes and travellers live on these offerings. The Shaykh however limits himself to a single cow, with whose milk he breaks his fast every ten days. It was by his labours that the people of these mountains became converted to Islam, and that was the reason for his settling amongst them. When I came into his presence he rose to greet me and embraced me. He asked me about my native land and my travels, and when I had given him an account of them he said to me: ‘You are a traveller of the Arabs’. Those of his disciples who were there, said: ‘and the non-Arabs too, O our master’. ‘And of the non-Arabs too’ he repeated, to show him honour. They then took me to the hermitage and gave me hospitality for three days.(Ibn Battuta 1929: 268-9)
Further on Ibn Battuta narrates a story quite in the spirit of manqib, confirming Shah Jalal’s miraculous gift of clairvoyance. At the traveller’s request, at his departure the saint gave him a mantle of goat’s hair. At the same time the Saint foretold that this mantle would be taken away from him by a certain ‘infidel sultan’, who in turn would make a present of it to Burhan ad-Din of Sagharji, for whom the mantle had been made. In reply Ibn Battuta vowed that he would never appear wearing his mantle in the presence of any ruler, whether Muslim or infidel. After a long time, while travelling through China, Ibn Battuta found himself in Khansa [Hang-chow-fu], where his mantle caught the local ruler’s fancy, and the traveller was obliged to give it away in exchange for generous gifts. The same year Ibn Battuta found himself in Peking, where the Muslim mystic and missionary Burhan ad-Din Sagharji was preaching.
To Ibn Battuta’s inconceivable astonishment he found Burhan ad-Din in his cell wearing the same wonderful mantle which had been taken away from him by the ruler of Hang-chow. Shah Jalal’s prediction had come true. ‘This mantle’, explained Burhan ad-Din, ‘was made especially for me by my brother Jalal ad-Din, who wrote to me saying “The mantle will reach you by the hand of so-and-so” ’ (Ibn Battuta 1929: 270). Ibn Battuta was astounded by the perfect foreknowledge of the saint of Bengal, and the Chinese missionary’s response no doubt added to his fervour:
‘My brother Jalal ad-Din can do much more than all this, he has the powers of creation at his disposal, but he has now passed to the mercy of God. I have been told’ he added, ‘that he prayed the dawn-prayer every day in Mecca, and that he made the pilgrimage every year, for he used to disappear from sight on the days of ‘Arafa and the festival, and no one knew where he went.’ (Ibn Battuta 1929: 270)
Unfortunately Ibn Battuta mistook Shah Jalal for his more famous predecessor, Jalaluddin Tabrizi Suhrawardi, already mentioned more than once in this book, but, first, the latter died in 1244 and could not have met Ibn Battuta one hundred years later and, second, he had nothing to do with Sylhet; his khnqah was situated in Lakhnauti (Abdar Rahim 1960: 43). Ibn Battuta’s mistake began to be accepted in one hagiographic work after another, then filtered into the scientific literature, and in the very recent past Annemarie Schimmel has referred to Jalaluddin Tabrizi’s sanctuary in Sylhet (Schimmel 1980: 48).
Having finally settled down in Bengal, Shah Jalal did not leave it till his very death, but people’s faith in his wonder-working powers was so great that the tradition, retold by Ibn Battuta, was maintained that every day he performed nama¯ in Mecca and then in the twinkling of an eye returned to Sylhet. For that matter, this ‘miracle’ is a commonplace of the entire Indian hagiography: even Amir Khurd, who usually endeavours to avoid stories about kar mat, writes that every morning a flying camel used to carry away Nizamuddin Awliya to Ka‘ba and bring him back by the first breakfast (Amir Khurd 1978: 152). The cult of Shah Jalal’s veneration in no way reflects his military feats and his status as a ghaz: in contrast to Bahraich, no banners and spears are held at his mazar in Sylhet.
Like many other saints of East Bengal Shah Jalal gradually acquired the traits of a guardian of waters and patron of trades connected with water, for example fishermen and boatmen. The rites of the saint’s veneration are bound up with the sacred pond, adjacent to his tomb. In the pond, where the faithful perform ritual ablutions, there are huge fish, and the feeding of these fish is the principal pious act of ziyarat to Sylhet. If the fish eat the offering, the pilgrim’s supplication will be heard. In this sense Shah Jalal’s cult is quite similar to the rites of veneration of Mangho Pir or Bayazid Bistami in Chittagong and, again, is influenced by Hindu rituals.
Connection of the saints of East Bengal with the element of water has manifested itself even in the image of the sailor saint Pir Badr (who died in 1420), the centre of whose activity became Chittagong (in the territory of what is now Bangladesh). Like Salar Mas‘ud and Shah Jalal, Shaikh Badruddin or Pir Badr-i ‘alam is a historical person; references to him are to be found not only in hagiographic works but also in Badauni’s famous Muntakhab at-tawarıkh. This historian, in particular, refers to the saint’s grandfather, a certain Shihabuddin nicknamed ‘Haqq-go’ (Telling the truth or Truthful), who was executed on Muhammad bin Tughluq’s orders because he publicly called this Sultan a tyrant. Pir Badr spent his childhood in Meerut and was educated in Multan where he was initiated into the Suhrawardiyya order by Jalaluddin Bukhari. Later, at the invitation of Sharafuddin Yahya Maneri, he moved to Bihar where was initiated into the Firdawsiyya order, which was predominant in that province. He married into a Bihari Hindu family and set off for Sonargaon and Chittagong in East Bengal.
In the second half of the fourteenth century the Sultan of Sonargaon, Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah (during whose rule Ibn Battuta visited Bengal), went on several military expeditions for the purpose of subjugating Chittagong. Pir Badr participated in one of these expeditions, having disembarked with a military detachment of mercenaries on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. At that time Chittagong was a small settlement, its environs were covered with thick humid forests, marshes and shallow bays. Constant floods and hurricanes made it an unattractive place, and no wonder that among Bengali Muslims it was considered to be an abode of evil spirits. Pir Badr’s decision to remain in this desolate territory puzzled his companions.
However, Pir Badr’s ascetic life and preaching made a great impression upon the inhabitants of Assam, Tripura and the Hindus of the Magh5 tribe who inhabited the Arakan region that borders on Burma. It was in their midst that the two main legends about the saint took shape, according to which he reached the shore of Chittagong atop a drifting rock and travelled to Arakan on the back of a huge fish, which is how his arrival in Bengal aboard a ship was interpreted by hagiographers. A gradual process of embellishment and the cyclic evolution of these legends led to the veneration of Pir Badr as the guardian saint of waters and the patron saint of sailors. Before setting off on a sea voyage sailors used to invoke the saint’s blessing in the prayer:
Amara achchi popalan Gazi achche nigahman, Shire Ganga dariya Panch pir, Badr, Badr, Badr We are children and the Ghazi is our protector, The river Ganges is over us. Oh Panch Pir [Oh, the five saints], Oh Badr, Badr! (Rizvi 1986: 316)
From this invocation follows, first, the recognition of the status of hazı in respect of Pir Badr; second, the connection of this saint with the aforementioned cult of Five Pır; and third, the prevalence of Pir Badr’s cult amongst Hindus (in the reference to the Ganges as the sacred celestial river). Indeed the Bengali version of Five Pırs is inclusive of Pir Badr (along with Ghazi Miyan, Jalaluddin Tabrizi, Shaikh Farid and Khwaja Khizr). Another invocation to Pir Badr is connected with the custom of sailors and boatmen to throw small coins into the water in order to ensure a safe voyage:
Dariya ke panch paise kı qurbanı, Are Badr, Badr, Badr!
We are sacrificing five paise to the river, oh Badr, Badr, Badr!(Asad ‘Ali 1979: 208)
It is known that before undertaking a voyage through the Bay of Bengal, sailors and merchants, praying for a fair wind and seeking protection from the Burmese and Portuguese pirates, used to give a promise in writing to Pir Badr to pay a certain amount in his name. When a ship safely reached Chittagong special port officials used to board the ship and collect from the crew and the passengers the amount promised by them for payment to the saint. This ritual, apparently, is older than Pir Badr’s cult: even Ibn Battuta writes about it, connecting it with the name of the seafarers’ patron saint Abu Ishaq Kazeruni (who died in 1035), to whom Indian sailors, on the way to the China Sea, used to pay money as promised (Trimingham 1971: 236).
People also used to apply to Pir Badr for help during floods, which are very frequent in the coastal regions of East Bengal. After collective ziyarat of the devotees to the saint’s tomb, the waters miraculously abated. According to popular etymology this manifestation of karmat called into being the distorted form of the saint’s name, Badar-rao (as a result of mistakenly merging together the words badr and ra’o: the latter word in Indian languages means ‘prince’ or ‘chief’), which together means ‘channel for water’ or ‘drain’ (whereas the saint’s name in Arabic means ‘full moon’) (Asad ‘Ali 1979: 145).
Pir Badr’s connection with water has manifested itself in the main ritual of his veneration: during the days of the saint’s ‘urs people used to visit the village pond or the neighbouring river and float small bunches of grass on the water, on which, as on rafts, they placed lighted lamps. Everyone knows that lights floating on water are typical of Diwalı rituals and many other religious festivals of the Hindus. Very similar were the veneration rituals of the legendary saint Khwaja Khidr (al-Khadir), whom the Hindus of East Bengal depicted travelling on a fish and that is why they identified him with matsya - the ‘fish’ avatar of Lord Vishnu.
The mysterious figure of Khwaja Khizr, the green-clad hero of Muslim legends and tales, shows through the outlines of the historical image of many South Asian saints. Travelling together with Iskandar (Alexander of Macedonia), he drank deep from the spring of the water of life and became immortal; hence his most popular nickname Zinda Pır. Commentators of the Qur’ n consider that in the yat 60-81 of the sura ‘The Cave’ there is reference to Khizr as a preceptor and companion of the Prophet Musa (Moses), revealing secret mystic truth to the latter. If in popular tales Khizr used to come to the aid of wayfarers who had lost their way and of people in trouble, to Sufis he appeared all the time in visions and dreams.
Generally identified with Ilyas (Elias) as ‘the servant of God’, conductor and instructor of Moses ... al-Khair possesses hikma (wisdom) ... and al-ism al-a’zam (the greatest Name), knowledge of which confers saintship and ability to do supra-normal things. Hypostatized as a person he represents in Sufi thought the inner light of wilaya, parallel to, and contrasted with, the apostolic-legalistic aspects of prophecy signified by Moses. (Trimingham 1971: 158)
If for theorists of Sufism Khizr remained the mysterious spirit of Muslim gnosis and an indispensable link in the chain of spiritual succession (silsila al-baraka), in popular Islam he acquired the traits of the spirit or even the deity of rivers, springs and wells. Khwaja Khizr was invoked by sailors and boatmen, beseeching him to help them cross over to the other shore (Ay Khwja Khidr be¸par). Khizr was also identified with prophet Ilyas (the Biblical Elijah), having a stable connotation with water in all Semitic religions. It is interesting that the festival in honour of Khizr, celebrated in the first half of the month of Bhadoñ in North India and accompanied by the floating on water of little paper boats with lighted earthen saucers, was called ‘Ilyas kıkishtı’ (Boat of Ilyas).
The saints of Bengal like Shah Jalal, Pir Badr and the Five Pırs in various aspects of their miracle-working activity play the role of Khizr’s substitutes: they guard sources of water, they miraculously move about in water, they come at the last moment to the aid of the needy, mostly sailors, fishermen and those who are drowning. All the rituals of their veneration in some way or other are performed in water: bathing in sacred ponds, the feeding of sacred fish or tortoises, the floating of lamps on a river, etc.
The etiology of these cults is typical for East Bengal, which is indeed a country of water, where traffic travels mainly on waterways, and agriculture (the cultivation of rice and jute) and other spheres of economy were closely connected with rivers, lakes and canals. The theme of water permeates even the folklore of East Bengalis, the poetry of bauls, the sailors’ songs bht’ijli and bromsı (the songs of seamen’s wives, longing in separation for their husbands).
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: